Sudan Detained Journalists Who Supported Anti-Government Protests

In the midst of Sudan's ongoing economic crisis, President Omar Al-Bashir's regime decided to lift fuel subsidies, doubling prices. Citizens began to demonstrate in the streets on September 23rd, and in the last two weeks, authorities detained 70...

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Oct 6 2013, 2:39pm

Dahlia Elroubi before her arrest

Last Monday night, Abdel-Rahman El-Mahdi slept in his car outside Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) compound's gates. His wife, Dahlia Elroubi, had been arrested after eight NISS agents visited their home in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.

When the NISS agents arrived, Abdel sent his three children to their rooms. “I said [to the NISS agents], ‘Do you have a search warrant?’” Abel told me over the phone two days later. “They said, ‘No. We are national security, and we don’t need a search warrant.’” The agents tossed Dahlia—along with her camcorder, camera, photocopy machine, and small printer—into their car.

After the agents drove away, Abdel jumped in his car and drove after them. “They drove to the palace compound, and that was where I lost contact with her,” Abdel said. While his mother watched his three kids, Abdel spent the next day outside the gates, exhausted and wearing rumpled clothes. Authorities gave Abdel few details about why they arrested his wife.

This isn't surprising. In the midst of Sudan's ongoing economic crisis,  President Omar Al-Bashir's regime decided to lift fuel subsidies, doubling prices. Citizens began to demonstrate in the streets on September 23rd, and in the last two weeks, authorities detained 700 people and started to crackdown on the media.

“I think she got arrested because she spoke her mind about what she believes in,” Abdel said. “She believes that the people killed in the protests were killed unjustly. There was no reason for them to die.”

 “They are being pushed down by their government,” he said. “She believed for the future of our children, these things cannot go on.”

The government responded more aggressively and excessively to the demonstrations than many expected. Amnesty International reports more than 200 people were killed in the protests, although others on the ground believe the number is much higher.

“The recent crackdown on activists of all sorts is a desperate attempt at intimidation—much like the killings in the first few days of this current uprising—and to quell the unrest,” said Yousif Khalid, an activist who requested his name be changed because he fears government reprisal.

The government isn’t only silencing individuals’ voices. Several Sudanese newspapers were forced to shut down, and the government pressured others to depict the protesters as “saboteurs.” Four days after the protests started, the government shut down Al-Arabiya’s TV office in Khartoum. According to the Associated Press, several newspapers stopped publishing to avoid government pressure. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti defended the clampdown. Last Sunday, he told Al-Arabiya, “Media make revolutions. If the revolution is created by media, we have to be serious in dealing with it.”

Dr. Harry Verhoeven, an African politics professor at Oxford University, told me on the phone that he heard that several newspapers’ editors-in-chief were called in for a meeting and told not to report on the protests.

Dr. Verhoeven said, “Media freedom expands and contracts in Sudan. There is quite a bit of vibrancy and good journalism, and you'd sometimes be amazed what people can write or say, but coming too close to the red lines or hitting the wrong note at times of crisis is very dangerous.”

“The regime prefers not to kill or torture, but to shut down publications temporarily or to ensure no advertiser will lend its funds to the newspaper—an equally effective, but far less costly tactic,” he said. “There is also a long tradition of pre-publication censorship, during which NISS agents visit the newspaper the evening before publication and scan everything. This was officially lifted less than a year ago, but the threat—and occasionally practice—remains and as such encourages self-censorship.”

In recent weeks, journalists questioned these tactics. “Why do you insist on lying?” said journalist Burham Abdel-Moneim in a press conference after Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamed claimed photos posted on social networking sites of slain student protesters were fabricated and depicted protests in Egypt, not Sudan. Authorities immediately imprisoned Burhan after the conference, and the Washington Post said Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman could be heard muttering, “... will take measures against you.”

A Facebook page dedicated to freeing Burham received over 5,000 likes in less than two hours. Burham was released a few hours later, but hasn’t spoken about what happened to him. When he gave an interview later that evening, he appeared shaken. Even the anchor asked him if he was OK. Yousif said, “He was not as bold. Even the anchor asked him, ‘What was the matter?’ I think they threatened him with his family. Of course, he claimed he was all right. The interview was cut short.”

Another Sudan-based journalist, who has understandably requested to remain anonymous, emailed me. The journalist wrote, “[sic] I am afraid these days to pitch any article because the security forces are chasing the activists and the journalists, although they closed my newspaper two years ago and prevented me and other journalists from working at the other newspapers. But they [are] watching us all the time. When these demonstrations started, I published two articles about them, and I am not sure what will happen to me when they [see] my articles.”

Another particularly harrowing account came from Rania Mamoun, an award-winning novelist. On a Sudanese blog, she described being arrested with her brother and sister on September 24th:

I was hit by a large number of soldiers, who circled me like flies. The beating was intense and meant to hurt and abuse and many rods were used that I lost count. I can trace the effect on my body where marks are many. They dragged me on the ground and called me all sorts of names then threatened me with gang rape. I was even harassed by one of them, imagine.

With the continued beatings I reached the stage where I did not feel pain with every new strike that followed. Numbness, stiffness, or my body sagging or becoming a bag of cotton has enabled me to become indifferent or senseless. To be made senseless by beating is the ultimate level of pain and torture.

Authorities beat Rania's brother, breaking his collarbone, and then left him on the prison floor, where he bled until he lost consciousness.

To accomplish these efficient clampdowns, the NISS acquired an incredible network of informers in hotels, taxis, petrol stations, ministries, and youth gatherings. They also acquired very advanced ICT systems to monitor phone and internet activity—many activists believed these systems rely on the assistance of national telecom companies. “[No telecommunications company] will refuse to give security services the information they ask for,” said Yousif. “Applications like Whatsapp, [which are] very popular in Sudan, rely on your real phone number to give you an account. See where I'm going with this?”

The protests in Sudan fizzled out because the NISS was able to oppress demonstrators through different forms: arrests, detention, threats, and information obtained through technology. In this way, Dr. Verhoeven said the Sudanese security forces have been more successful at suppressing uprisings than their “colleagues in North Africa.”

Dr. Verhoeven remained skeptical that these protests could cause a political shift. “Even though lots of my friends in Sudan are trying to convince me that this time is somehow different, this time their tactics are really calibrated, and this time they are really fed up with the regime, I am not convinced of that yet,” he said. He saw this situation play out many times before, but is waiting to make a judgment call. As he noted, so far, more people were killed during these protests than previous demonstrations.

However, many disagreed with Dr. Verhoeven. After seeing non-activists take to the streets, Yousif believed discontent had spread far enough and deep enough for the government’s political intimidation to be insufficient to stop the protests.

When Abdel thought about the detention of his wife, he considered himself strangely fortunate. He said, “I am getting a lot of support, from family, from people outside, like yourself, calls with Amnesty. There are a lot of other people who have no clue what to do. I am a lucky one. I hope the opportunities I have to get her out, I can use to help others.” Despite not hearing news about his wife for days, he continued to actively post on social media and organize protests with other families in front of the NISS headquarters.

Rania’s essay ended with a defiant statement that reminded me of Abdel’s beliefs: “Your beating and your torture does not frighten me nor break me. It will not force me to retreat, but rather strengthens me and inspires me. You ask me: Are you not afraid? And I say: I’ve become stronger.”

As Abdel waited for news about his wife, his strength continued to be tested. 

More about Sudan:

Sudan Revolts: Internet Blackouts and Protesters Dead in the Streets

Capturing the Violent and Complex Birth of South Sudan

Inside Sudan

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